Changing Practice and water knowledge mediators

Starting points of the research project: This project emerged from two previous Water Research Commission (WRC) research projects. In 2006 Heila Lotz-Sisitka and Jane Burt (Lotz-Sisitka, 2006) undertook research on participation in the establishment of integrated water resources management (IWRM) structures. They found that while much emphasis had gone into the establishment of water resources management structures, very little attention was being given to building people’s capacity to participate effectively in these structures. Access to and the ability to make use of knowledge resources about water resources management is a key aspect of such capacity building.

Burt and Robert Berold (2012) undertook a study on the use of knowledge and learning resources about water and its management and of how such resources were being used. They found that while many useful knowledge and learning resources were being produced, both within and on behalf of the water sector, not many people were consulting or using them. A clear finding of the study was therefore that more attention should be given to the mediation of knowledge about water and its management, with the aim of reaching a better understanding about how such knowledge is used and what makes it meaningful to people on the ground.

Mediation of knowledge: Mediation of knowledge involves a process of interaction between people and learning resources so as to enhance the learning process. The process of mediation has socio-cultural and historical dimensions and involves language as well as the creation of meaning.

To inform the research programme, the researchers drew on learning theories that support democratic participation in learning, and that can help to explain how mediation takes place within a learning process. Such theories are known as social-cultural or social learning theories. The theories helped explain how to link everyday knowledge and experience with new knowledge, which is often contained in the knowledge resources produced by institutions such as the WRC.

Assumptions: The research programme assumes that there is a need to engage more critically with the assumptions (underlying and otherwise) that inform traditional approaches to the dissemination of knowledge within large-scale scientific institutions. The core assumption of the programme is that knowledge dissemination is not just a one-way process, but a two-way interaction, in which all parties involved in the interaction have to “make connections” between people’s everyday experiences and practices and new knowledge; and that this takes place via mediation.

The research process and outcomes: The research process was framed within a 3-phase process (illustrated in Figure 1 below). The overall project (this is captured in Deliverable 2: Project Design) has the broad objective of enhancing democratic participation in water management practices at community level through learning and improved mediation and uptake of water management knowledge (as outlined in Paper 1). Each phase of the research project produced outcomes that were used to frame and inform the next phase.

Phase 1: Exploring social learning in the context of water resource management and the contextual profiling to identify community-based water management practices and learning processes. This phase focused on reviewing social learning and mediation in the context of water resource management. It also included the initial contextual profiling in one site, namely, Cata in the Eastern Cape. The purpose was to identify a range of four community-based
water management practices that communities were engaging in.The core interest was not to document a detailed rendition of the water management practices, but to explore how these practices were being learned in a social context. Thus, the core focus of the research was on how communities were learning these water management practices, and what questions or concerns were arising in relation to the practices and the learning processes. However, after the initial focus on four community-based water management practices and the associated learning processes, the research team was advised to focus in more depth on just one water management practice. The one selected was rainwater harvesting practices using rainwater tanks. This provided further focus to the research, and allowed the researchers to deepen their contextual profiling and understanding of this practice and how communities were learning it. It also allowed the researchers to identify a set of key issues or questions that were emerging from
the practice in order to inform a question-based learning resource. The development and pilot
testing of this resource was in turn the key focus of Phase 2 of the research.

The key outcomes of this phase of the research were therefore:
1) how a change in the practice of water resource management calls for learning as a core interdisciplinary and democratic process;
2) insight into four community-based water resource management practices and how they are learned; and
3) further in-depth insight into one of these practices (rainwater harvesting using tanks) and the learning and mediation associated with this practice, as well as initial identification of issues and community questions associated with the practice.

The details of the first phase of the research are captured in the following documents:

  • Paper 1 of the final research report, which sets out the broad interest of the research programme (i.e. in how learning can potentially facilitate democratic water resource management.
  • Deliverable 1: A review of social learning in water resource management which explores the
    emergence of social learning in response to changes in our understanding of natural resource management with a particular focus on water.
  • Deliverable 3: Fieldwork report which tracks the contextual profiling of water managementpractices in Cata.
  • M. Ed. thesis by Charles Phiri entitled “An investigation of community learning through participation in integrated water resource management practices.”
    Contextual profiling report in the forthcoming PhD thesis of Nina Rivers.
    Progress report 1.

Phase 2: Designing and pilot testing a model learning resource based on questions emerging from the practice of community-based rainwater harvesting tanks. This phase drew on the contextual profiling insights from phase 1, consolidating these into the design and development of a practice-centred learning resource that has potential for mediation of water knowledge in ways that connect community experiences of practice with new knowledge developed by the scientific community. In this phase an expert with extensive experience of working with rainwater harvesting tanks in community contexts, was asked to use his experience to pinpoint key issues within the data generated in community context.Careful attention was given to the “melding” of community-based everyday knowledge and experience with the new knowledge offered by the expert and associated knowledge resources in the construction of a question-based learning resource on rainwater harvesting tanks and their use at community level. The learning resource was pilot tested in two sites – Cata, and the Sundays River Valley (Glenconnor and Kleinpoort) – to see how communities responded, and to test the scope and nature of the questions contained in the learning resource and their applicability in different contexts. Careful attention was also given to language issues, and to the mediation process, using the question-based learning resource. The learning resource was translated into Afrikaans andisiXhosa, and home language facilitators were involved in the mediation processes. Different mediation approaches and styles were documented.The key outcome of this phase of the research was further in-depth understandings of a practice centred approach to learning, and of how this can be mediated using a carefully designed learning resource that is explicitly developed and contextualised to ensure connections between everyday experience and practice, and new knowledge.

The details of Phase 2 of the research process are captured in:
Paper 2 in this final report.

In the PhD thesis of Nina Rivers.
Deliverable 4: Question-driven resource (which is included in the Appendix of the final report) and report on the development of the question-driven resource.
Deliverable 5: Catalogue and report on the development of the catalogue.
Progress report 1.
Progress report 2.

Phase 3: Pilot testing a “Changing Practice” course for water knowledge mediators working in NGO and extension training contexts. This phase of the research built on the previous two phases and the key lessons learnt and insights gained in Phase 1 and 2 were used to a course for water knowledge mediators working in NGO and extension training contexts.Thus, the course first encouraged water knowledge mediators to undertake local contextual
profiling to identify community-based water management practices, and the issues or concerns (questions) that local communities have about these practices.From here, course participants were encouraged to clarify the issues or questions associated with the practice that they were focusing on, and to identify new knowledge resources that could be helpful to mediating responses to the questions or issues experienced in the social context. Such
knowledge resources were found in knowledge networks, hence participants were encouraged to scope and identify these local knowledge networks; and in knowledge resources published by the WRC and other bodies: these were made more accessible via the catalogue that was developed as part of the research programme. Course participants were supported in their efforts to find ways of accessing water knowledge (e.g. via the Internet, WRC website, Share-Net).
Course participants were then encouraged to develop their own customized question-based learning resource (drawing on the model learning resource developed in Phase 2) which linked the everyday experiences and questions of people and their practices with new knowledge found in knowledge networks and knowledge resources. This resource was designed for them to use in the context of their knowledge mediation work. Course participants then pilot tested their
knowledge resource and reported on its use. The course was therefore framed to support improved mediation practices, in ways that contribute to changing practices in the social contexts in which they work. Course evaluation research showed this to be a valuable process, and various further insights were gained into practice-centred knowledge mediation in Phase 3. Recommendations for improving the course were made from these.The key outcome of this phase of the research is a piloted course that supports practitioners in NGOs, CBOs and extension services to improve the way in which they mediate water knowledge. The model developed is not a “transfer” extension and learning model, but
situated, practice-centred learning model in which mediation processes respond to emerging questions and issues in social contexts. Knowledge mediators need skills to identify contextual concerns at community level and to then identify new and relevant sources of knowledge that can respond to these, and then to “bring this in” in ways that connect with people’s experiences and practices.

The details of Phase 3 of the research are captured in further detail in:
Paper 3 of the final report captures the course design and curriculum framework.
Deliverable 7 which reports on the course evaluation.
The course materials used to guide mediators learning in the course.
Appendix B of the final report which contains some examples of the question driven learning
resources produced by course participants.

Conclusion – value of the research
A key outcome of all three phases of the research is a transformational model of learning that adopts a situated, practice-centred approach to the mediation of new knowledge. This model overcomes some of the weaknesses and assumptions of transfer model approaches to learning and extension where new knowledge is simply “transferred” with little regard for contextual meaning making and uptake / use of knowledge. The proposed model draws on social-cultural learning theory, and is guided by an interest in the democratisation of water management practices through
the access and use of knowledge in changing social practices.

The research shows that knowledge mediation requires that careful attention is given to a range of contextual factors that are social-ecological (or socio-material), historical-educational, linguistic and cultural. The research also shows that it is possible to strengthen support for NGOs and extension service agents that have responsibility for the mediation of water knowledge at community level in ways that ensure that the learning processes contribute to meaning-making in social contexts of practice; thus contributing to changes in practice.